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Richie Morales’ hummingbirds and dragonflies connect Guatemalan culture to persistent memory

The Madison-based painter’s show “The Effects Of Time On Memory” is up through July 10 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Photos by Elizabeth Lang.

As you enter Richie Morales’ exhibition The Effects Of Time On Memory, on display through July 10 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, you’ll find richly textured paintings whose vibrant colors emit a positive energy but also point to much more complex themes.

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Much of the show depicts Latin American flora and fauna in carefully layered blues, yellows, greens, pinks, and reds. Morales, a self-taught painter who grasps art as a way to understand his surroundings and reality, draws much of the show’s imagery from his home country of Guatemala.

“Art chose me. It’s the way I communicate to the world. It’s sometimes difficult [to communicate] coming from such a hurt context like Guatemala,” Morales says. “Sometimes you have too many prejudices and it was difficult for me to communicate by talking. That’s how drawing came up, and then in [drug] rehabilitation centers I had the opportunity of interacting with paint.”

Morales grew up on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala.

“Guatemala’s history, just like the rest of Latin America, is a complicated history with the U.S. Their political interventions have greatly affected us,” Morales says. “Guatemala is the result of years of interventions, military governments, coups, and oligarchies.”

These external factors affected Morales’ experience as a child that later in life transferred to his art.

“I had a complicated childhood: phases of drugs, alcoholism, and losing friends to violence,” Morales says. “Losing a friend is very painful. You’re speaking to them and, suddenly, right around the corner he’s killed. Those conditions struck me and I was looking for a way to understand why those things were happening.” 

But then he discovered paint. In it he found an ability to create movements and textures, which run through the curves of the flora and fauna in his work.


Morales’ depictions of hummingbirds use texture to create a sense of movement.

Morales’ depictions of hummingbirds use texture to create a sense of movement.

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Flowers are opened up for the hummingbirds to feed themselves. The birds are outlined and their insides are filled with colorful lines to create the illusion that they’re flying.

At first glance, the exhibition’s 41 paintings (to match Morales’s 41 years of life) on Arts + Lit Lab’s first and second floor might seem simple. But they’re not. They’re asking the viewer to reflect on the concept of memory.

“For me, it’s like another ritual to go deep inside. Play with that memory. For me, memories are in layers, and sometimes you can’t access them directly,” Morales says. “But an event, a song, food, or a beverage suddenly takes you to a time in your childhood, or a place that you were not planning to go to.”

In exploring these themes, Morales found the connections between time, memories, and nature’s beauty. 

“For Holy Week in Guatemala, carpets made out of flowers are created,” Morales says. “Afterwards, the people carrying the procession walk over it and the colors are disassembled. That inspires me as well as the textiles of Guatemala.”


Textiles from Guatemala influence the way Morales painted his pieces.

Textiles from Guatemala influence the way Morales painted his pieces.

This strong inspiration from his home country is also a reflection of Morales’s Indigenous roots and his love for Guatemalan huipiles, a traditional garment worn by Indigenous women in Mexico and Central America.

“The huipiles represent nature and they tell stories through their embroideries. The symbolisms are part of the native cultures,” Morales says.

And the huipil is deeply tied to Morales’ art in the past that dealt with social topics such as the violence in deportation. He saw the huipil as a metaphor to find his way through Madison and use art as a tool to question society.

“At the beginning my art was more about complaints,” Morales says, referring to earlier work in which violence and darkness play much more explicit roles. “But now I’ve allowed myself to feel the anger as well as the healing.”


Morales in 2019 at the Centro Hispano with a painting that reflects on the violence of deportation.

Morales in 2019 at the Centro Hispano with a painting that reflects on the violence of deportation.

Now, the huipil is the inspiration for his textures, vivid colors, and healing after extensively painting about violence and pain.

Morales paints with a deep connection to both nature and Guatemalan Indigenous culture. His depictions of hummingbirds, beetles, deer, butterflies, dragonflies, cicadas, toads, turtles, and a quetzal bird in this exhibition illustrates this link. 


The lines in this painting of a turtle are directly inspired by Guatemalan huipiles.

The lines in this painting of a turtle are directly inspired by Guatemalan huipiles.

They’re not there for their simple, aesthetically pleasing beauty. They are there to talk to you, and reveal to you their deeper meaning within Guatemalan culture, according to Morales.

Mayan culture treats the hummingbird as a powerful messenger, a role that Morales identifies with as an artist. He also includes the deer which in Mayan culture represents the birth of the sun.

“When it rains while the sun is out, people in Guatemala say that deer are being born,” Morales says. “It’s just as with Gabriel García Márquez, it’s all that magic realism you grow up with; the popular sayings and all of that stuff.”


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And then, there are also butterflies, which Morales understands as a metaphor for his metamorphosis and intent of flying. The butterflies are also accompanied by dragonflies and cicadas throughout the Arts + Lit Lab.


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Morales has a strong kinship with another critter found in his paintings. 

“Some cicadas spend 12 or 13 years underground. It’s that necessity of spending time with yourself so that you can then surge into life,” Morales says.

In one of the exhibition’s standout pieces, Morales depicts the quetzal bird, Guatemala’s national bird, in radiant but stately greens and reds.


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Next to each of the 41 paintings, you’ll find a short poem by the Bolivian writer and philologist Claudia Vaca.  These grew out of a collaboration that began when Morales asked her to write a set of poems that follow the structure of Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel Rayuela.

The novel’s title is the Spanish word for “hopscotch.” In the novel’s instruction table, Cortázar tells the reader to read in a linear way until chapter 56 and then jump to chapter 73. It’s not a straight order and the reader is immersed in a literary piece that does not follow the conventional reading style.

“The purpose of Cortázar’s novel is to give a linear reading, but at the end he proposes a reading where you skip chapters and can read it in disorder,” Morales says. “I asked Claudia to write the poems with a Rayuela style; that each poem went along with a painting so that it could be organized and disorganized [at the same time].”


All of Morales' paintings are accompanied by a short poem written by Claudia Vaca.

All of Morales’ paintings are accompanied by a short poem written by Claudia Vaca.

In the poem accompanying the six canvases that come together to show a dragonfly, Vaca treats its wings as a metaphor for freedom: 

The windows of their wings watch

their inner flutter

migrating from one memory to the other

within the larvae movement 

they find the value of routine

in their eye’s retina

they glimpse the rainbow

where they will be free

Through this multimedia approach, viewers interact with the paintings while the poems speak directly to them. During the weekend of June 4 through 6, Geraldine Paredes, the Race and Gender Equity Director at YWCA Madison and Morales’ wife, read Vaca’s poems out loud in the gallery while dancer Natalia Armacanqui performed as a means to honor cultures in resistance.


Morales painted six canvases that in unison create a colorful outlined dragonfly.

Morales painted six canvases that in unison create a colorful outlined dragonfly.

“Natalia interacted with the paintings on the first floor as part of her dance,” Paredes says. “But how she interacted with them was a way to invite the art’s metaphors in her movements.”

Armacanqui incorporated into her performance a word from the Quechua Indigenous language, “kachkaniraqmi,” which  means “we continue to exist,” as a means to honor Indigenous and marginalized communities in Latin America.

All of these threads, from painted beasts to a commemorative dance, intertwine with Morales’ main message. “Hope is the way,” he says. “We should stop for a while and rethink the fact that we’re more connected than we think. There’s a hope in existence and not everything is lost.”

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